Seven years after the coup, incompetence and corruption rife in the Thai regime

Also in this edition: Vajiralongkorn has still not been sighted, a royalist tycoon is arrested for massive fraud, and harassment of protesters continues

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Regime more unpopular than ever as coup anniversary passes

May 22 was the seventh anniversary of the latest coup in Thailand, and it is now clearer than ever that the regime of prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha has been a disaster for the country. The clearest current example of its incompetence is its disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which is now causing open divisions in the coalition.

The number of infections in the third wave that began last month has now risen above 100,000. In further evidence of an expected production shortfall at royal company Siam Bioscience, which the government had initially intended to rely on for the vast majority of its vaccine needs, The Standard reported that some hospitals have now been forced to delay second inoculations, and the government says it will seek to get 12 doses from every vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. No other country in the world is trying to do this, with the partial exception of South Korea, as Erich Parpart explains in an analysis for Thai Enquirer:

Why is Thailand squeezing two more doses out of a vaccine bottle when the global standard is one extra dose per bottle?

This is just one of the many doubts that Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has created after he told agencies to try to get two more doses out of each vail.

It is not just that the practice is not being done elsewhere around the world, it is that the move reeks of desperation.

Also at Thai Enquirer, Cod Satrusayang reports that four government factions are now feuding over coronavirus policy. Anutin’s Bhumjai Thai Party has been openly critical of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration run by Prayut, following the government’s U-turn on walk-in vaccine centres.

The damage to the economy — and in particular the crucial tourism sector — is proving much worse than initially expected. The National Economic and Social Development Council has just announced that tourism is unlikely to fully revive in Thailand for another five years. Most small businesses in the sector simply won’t be able to survive for that long.

In a post on Facebook to mark the coup anniversary, ousted former Premier Yingluck Shinawatra wrote that the regime had failed to keep its promises. A Thai PBS report has a partial English translation:

Throughout the past seven years, I feel hurt and bitterness for my Thai brothers and sisters, who have been tolerating and hoping that the government will eventually do some good for the country. As the years have gone by, however, all the promises they made, to justify the coup against me, have no sign of ever being fulfilled.

Chulalongkorn University professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak was scathing about the regime’s failings in an opinion article in the Bangkok Post, although I think he underestimates the resilience of the protest movement:

There are so many instances of wrongdoings, conflicts of interest, and graft that news headlines simply cannot keep up with them. After days and weeks, they are crowded out by yet more of the same…

The Prayut government's evident impunity on the back of sheer ineptitude and gross mismanagement spells big trouble ahead for Thailand. Because there is no available way to get rid of it in parliament, thanks to the systematic weakening of opposition parties and key accountability decisions in its favour, only extra-parliamentary pressure can be applied. But the student-led reform movement in the streets has lost momentum, and another movement of its kind would need time to build.

Another Bangkok Post article made the gloomy prediction that Prayut would probably remain in office for at least another six years. With no reform of the constitution in sight, the regime is guaranteed to be able to control parliament thanks to the 250 unelected senators.

As usual, one thing missing from most discussion of the 2014 coup was the role of the palace. As Somsak Jeamteerasakul observed on social media, it was a “coup for the monarchy” and “any discussion that does not address this issue is futile debate”.

Real power in Thailand lies with King Vajiralongkorn and the military. Prayut and his incompetent government are a puppet regime. Even if Prayut is pushed out of office as the economy tanks and unpopularity of the regime rises ever higher, another proxy for the palace will be put in his place.

Where are the royals?

There has been no sighting of King Vajiralongkorn, Queen Suthida Tidjai or Noble Consort Sineenat Wongvajirabhakdi in public or on royal news since the start of May. The only senior royal to be sighted is Princess Sirindhorn, who is now able to walk again after both of her ankles were broken in January. Sirindhorn’s official website lists all her royal engagements, which just emphasises how little Vajiralongkorn is doing in comparison.

As I reported earlier this month, the disappearance of the royals coincides with unusually widespread and persistent gossip that Vajiralongkorn is dying or dead, but I have seen no evidence that the regime believes his reign is coming to an end, and nor have any of my trusted sources.

But the absence of all the royals clearly shows that all is not well in the palace, and it’s certainly possible that he remains ill after being hospitalised earlier this month..

The most interesting aspect of the whole episode was that millions of Thais were openly wishing for the death of their monarch, flooding social media with comments and memes, which was unprecedented and extraordinary. It was the starkest illustration yet of how hated Vajiralongkorn is in Thailand.

This caused outrage in the palace, and the government was ordered to do something about it, so deputy dictator Prawit Wongsuwan was photographed chairing a meeting at the Anti-Fake News Centre, an absurd organisation that exists in some kind of inverted parallel universe in which all the government’s lies are true and all criticism of the regime is dangerous disinformation that must be suppressed. A large screen was set up behind him with the logo “ANTI FAKENEWS”.

Afterwards, Thai media reported that the government had vowed to “get tough” on fake news, and the Prime Minister’s Operations Centre announced a list of 10 dangerous Facebook pages that you must avoid at all costs. One of them was mine, and the other nine were:

It’s not clear why Somsak Jeamteerasakul was not on the list. The inclusion of Penguin and Arnon suggests the regime is hoping to push the false narrative that they are connected to a sinister international conspiracy to undermine Thailand, a claim the regime regularly makes.

The PMOC even produced a handy infographic to tell everybody what Facebook pages they should definitely not follow.

Of course, this is free publicity for myself and the other pages mentioned. The regime seems incapable of avoiding the trap of the Streisand effect, because when the palace orders them to do something, they just have to obey, however counterproductive it is.

Another “good person” falls to earth

For decades, the Thai elite have claimed that they are “good people” who achieved their success through merit, when in fact of course the opposite often tends to be true. Notoriously, Vajiralongkorn urged voters ahead of the 2019 election to choose “good people” — a clear signal to support Prayut and and his allies.

But now another of the “good people” has come crashing back to earth — businessman Prasit Jeawkok who was arrested a week ago, accused of leading a one-billion baht fraudulent investment scheme. He was denied bail and sent to Bangkok Remand Prison.

Senior military officers are also suspected of involvement, including army doctor lieutenant colonel Amraporn Visetsuk.

Thai PBS has some background on Prasit and the image he created of being “a saint and a model of success”:

Over the past three years, Prasit has managed to create a larger-than-life image as a “reformed gangster” now running a billion-baht business empire and giving back tremendously to society…

In April last year, Prasit told popular TV talk show “Joh Jai” that he was returning 90 percent of his profits to society through a project called “Paying Back to the Motherland”, boasting Bt100 million each year in charity work and donations to the public.

Opposition politician Pannika Wanich of the Progressive Movement accused him in December of helping with the military’s information operations spreading propaganda and disinformation. Prasit admitted owning apps and computer servers used by the military but claimed “his goal was to combat fake news by spreading facts about His Majesty the King’s kindness”.

He even went on a talk show in December to unbutton his shirt to reveal the words “Long Live the King” tattooed on his chest.

Prasit’s close military ties are acutely embarrassing for the army. As Voranai Vanijaka noted, he is “a mover and shaker who waltzes in and out of army barracks and government buildings with swag”.

There are many questions to be answered about his links to the military and the palace. The Bangkok Post reports:

With an investigation into the scams underway, the question arises over Mr Prasit’s “special relationship with the army” and his dubious role in the army’s controversial information operations (IO) programme, which the army has denied. The IO were accused of disseminating misinformation, instigating hate, and widening polarisation. 

It’s highly unlikely, however, that there are going to be any answers.

More harassment of protesters

While most jailed activists have finally been given bail — thanks mainly to a determined hunger strike by Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, as well as the coronavirus crisis engulfing the Thai prison system — harassment of protesters is continuing.

The regime has often been willing to target relatives of people they don’t like (including detaining my wife back in 2016) and in the latest example, Rung posted on Facebook that her mother has received a police summons for joining one of the daily silent protests outside the Supreme Court on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to call for the release of jailed activists including her daughter.

She is accused of breaching the Emergency Decree by organising an unauthorised gathering on April 28 which risked spreading the virus. In fact, protesters took care to remain socially distanced, and prevented too many people from gathering.

Two other activists have also been summoned for taking part in the protests, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, a woman from Kalasin, Lalita Meesuk, is facing lèse majesté charges for posting a video on TikTok allegedly criticising the king. The complaint was filed by Apiwat Kantong, a lawyer at the Office of the Prime Minister. She was released on bail.

In another incident of vigilantes targeting people accused of insulting the monarchy, Prachatai reports:

A group of people claiming to be government officials and people “with the duty of suppression and control regarding the institution of the monarchy” stormed a student’s home in Phetchabun Province to force her to apologize for alleged royal defamation.

The men, who said they were from the Department of Provincial Administration, accused the student of posting inappropriate video clips about the monarchy, and forced her to apologise to a portrait of Vajiralongkorn. They filmed the incident and posted it on social media but later deleted it. The Free Phetchabun activist group later took her to file a police report, and correctly observed that such intimidation just further harms the image of the monarchy:

Your actions do not exalt in any way the institution that you have faith in or respect, but completely destroy the main institution.

Meanwhile, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that plainclothes police visited the homes of at least nine activists in Roi Et to warn them to not hold any political activities on May 20, while Princess Sirindhorn was visiting the town.

Further reading

In an excellent analysis, US-based academic Zachary Abuza noted that the crisis in Myanmar will cause severe problems for Thailand, with a flood of migrants and illegal drugs produced by ethnic armed organisations:

What happens in Myanmar will not stay in Myanmar and Thailand’s military-backed junta has been slow to realise this. The Tatmadaw has shown the Thais the extent that they are willing to go to cling to power, at the expense of their economy, rule of law, and educational system. Myanmar might not be a failed state yet, but it is teetering towards becoming one. And the capture of the state by EAOs and transnational syndicates will impact Thai security for years to come.

And finally, Thai television show Girl From Nowhere is back for a second series on Netflix, and has proven to be a hit across Asia. Kong Rithdee has two excellent articles — one in the Bangkok Post and the other at NME — discussing the show and its political significance:

To understand Girl From Nowhere — the Netflix sensation whose second season has topped charts across Asia since its May 7 release — you must first understand Thailand.

Or at least you have to understand Thailand in 2020, the year marked by youth-led street protests and the Bad Students movement — the year when schoolchildren began questioning what had been once unquestionable, and when they marched, in uniform, to the Ministry of Education to demand the resignation of its conservative minister.

Discussing the lead character, Nanno, a mysterious woman who joins a new school in each episode and proceeds to wreak havoc, he writes:

Nanno humiliates, inflicts injuries, incites mobs, provokes murder, and upends status quo. Her ultimate target, however, is the culture of impunity and institutionalised oppression. That’s why, even though the series draws its urgency from the context of contemporary Thailand, Girl From Nowhere has also touched a chord with audiences elsewhere — presumably young, frustrated viewers who also nurse a pent-up fury against their own respective systems.

The show itself is very melodramatic, and especially in the second season, extremely violent, but worth watching.

That’s all for this edition. Thank you for reading! 🙏